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David McLaughlin is a former Conservative party chief of staff at the federal and provincial levels.

When it comes to climate change, we are unabashedly hyphenated Canadians.

Bottom-up, short-term, provincial-led best describes the patchwork, fragmented mélange of policies set to govern climate action across the country. Never have Canadian governments been so united in their desire to act on climate change. And never have they been so united in their desire to do so for different reasons and in different ways.

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This is not necessarily a bad thing. We are a federation, after all, and it is progress. But it is a thing that bears watching. For the recent rhetorical rush to embrace climate change in theory masks what must be done to combat it in reality.

Alberta chose an economy-wide carbon tax and capped oil-sands emissions to, well, sell oil sands. Economic necessity drove environmental activity to assure market access. Ontario is about to embark on cap-and-trade by first giving three years of free pollution permits to emitters before any market auction commences, all to avoid economic shock. British Columbia's famed carbon tax has not been allowed to rise, even though higher carbon emissions from new tax-subsidized LNG facilities are expected.

In the environment-economy hyphenation, the economy still dominates. It is this realization that confronts Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he meets with premiers, jets to the Paris climate talks and starts his 90-day climate clock to come up with a national target and plan for all of Canada. His work is made both easier and harder by what he inherited from the previous government.

Absent federal leadership, provinces did what they do best on complicated public-policy files: innovated and acted. The result? About three-quarters of forecast emission reductions to 2020 will come from provincial actions, not federal. The harder part is to knit together this provincial activity into an ambitious yet realistic target for Canada. Even with Alberta's new policy, provincial plans do not get us to the Conservative government's stated target of a 30-per-cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2030. The sometimes uncomfortable thing about evidence-based decision-making is that it works both ways.

Mr. Trudeau needs to determine whether and how to fill this gap. Going into Paris with Stephen Harper's target is unavoidable; coming out with it next spring is unpalatable.

Canada has not yet experienced a true bipartisan political and societal consensus on the reality of climate change and the need to act upon it. Yet, this condition precedent has been at the core of successful action by every other country. Until Mr. Trudeau's election last month, no federal government made it a central thrust of its agenda. Mr. Trudeau's ramped-up rhetoric seeks to congeal an emerging consensus. Circumstances favour him. Save for B.C.'s centre-right government of former premier Gordon Campbell, climate-change action has been the province (so to speak) of the centre-left in Canada. The country is dominated today by such governments, giving Mr. Trudeau real running room. He looks set to lace-up in response.

The Prime Minister's preferred analogy is medicare. It was the basis of this statement in a major climate-policy speech last February in Calgary: "So, we will set a national standard in partnership with provinces and territories, one that gives them the flexibility to design their own policies to achieve those targets, including their own carbon-pricing policies." The second half of that statement exists now. What's missing is the first half, the national standard. Is it a negotiated "stretch" target for the country, a minimum emissions floor everyone must meet, a national carbon-price equivalent across jurisdictions to minimize intraprovincial and international carbon leakage of industries and jobs, or some hybrid emissions-equalization transfer program?

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Having carved out territory, premiers are now carving out conditions. Premiers know well the medicare battles of the past, when a declining share of federal contributions accompanied a rising share of political interference. No federal policy intrusion and big federal dollars for innovation, infrastructure, and even "early action," will be asked.

Yes, Canada is back. In all its practical, hyphenated splendour. Sweetness and light en route to Paris should neither sugar-coat the tough low-carbon economic transition ahead nor obscure the trying political choices 90 days hence. Still, we should not begrudge the splendid start. That would be so un-Canadian.

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